Is God’s Command to Circumcise At Odds with Principles of Bodily Integrity?
As a staunch believer in bodily integrity, I have always struggled with God’s initial command to circumcise men and boys. This command made me wonder why God would command genital mutilation. Even though this practice was mostly limited to the Old Testament, it still troubled me that God would command this of all things. Though many sources say that circumcision is a reminder of God’s covenant with Abraham, I still find myself asking “Why circumcision?”, especially when taking into account the other rules the ancient Israelites had to follow.
Why I Think Circumcision, Especially Infant Circumcision is Harmful
In order to understand my perspective on male circumcision, it helps to explain the importance of the foreskin. It is a long tube of skin that covers the glans (head) and shaft of the penis. Its functionality is debated, but it contains mucosal glands similar to those in the eyes and mouth. The foreskin protects the glans, has specialized immunological functions, and aids in pleasuring both the penis-bearer and any sexual partners they may have. It contains a multitude of nerve endings that allow erotic and other sensation to occur.
Circumcision was found to affect the penilo-cavernosus reflex impossible or delayed in one study. This is due to the fact that the foreskin, but not the shaft, has fine-touch receptors. The reflex was clinically non-elicitable in 8% of a control group of non-circumcised men, 64% of men with foreskin retraction, and 73% of circumcised men. The penilo-cavernosus reflex is used by urologists to assess cases of sacral nerve dysfunction among other factors. Since circumcision can make diagnosing sacral neurologic lesions more difficult, it is clear that the foreskin is not a mere extra piece of skin.
Babies who were circumcised were significantly more likely to have skin adhesions, inflammation of the glans, and an irritated urethral opening than those who were intact. This suggests that circumcision does not have a hygienic benefit. Moreover, circumcision is linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, abnormal psychological development in boys, and difficulty in articulating feelings (alexithymia) in men. On top of that, many infant circumcisions in the US are performed without anesthetic, up to 96% in some states. These infants are at an increased risk for choking, especially during the “procedure”, which makes me wonder why more people don’t struggle with this command.
To be clear, ancient Israelite and modern American circumcision took place in different contexts. The former was a direct command from God while the latter was popularized by the Victorian anti-masturbation movement (yes, that was an actual thing) and somehow became one of America’s cultural norms.
Circumcision in Biblical Times
Circumcision was commanded in Genesis 17 when God changed Abram’s name to Abraham. It was a reminder of God’s covenant to Israel. Every male that was born from his lineage or bought as a slave would be circumcised at eight days old provided as long barring any prohibitive conditions (example: hemophilia). In this type of circumcision, only a small amount of foreskin was removed. Another practice removed enough foreskin to expose the glans, but this practice was added to the Jewish circumcision rite in 140 A.D. This mitigates many of the physical risks stated above, but it would still result in early childhood trauma in a boy that was eight days old at the time of his circumcision.
When Moses and Zipporah’s son was circumcised, Zipporah touched Moses’s feet with the foreskin and called him a “bridegroom of blood.” In John 7, this is referenced when Jesus was accused of having a demon at the Feast of Booths. Since circumcision, an act of mutilation, was not prohibited on the Sabbath, why would healing, an act of restoration, stoke the ire of ancient Israel’s religious officials? It seems that Jesus posed this question to not only point out the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, but to show his disgust with Israel’s culture at the time. Compliance with Mosaic laws took priority over the wellbeing of others.
Later in the history of the early church, Peter explained his vision of killing and eating both clean and unclean animals to some circumcised critics. They ended up converting to Christianity after hearing about Peter’s vision. Peter’s vision represents the ushering in of the new Covenant: one that does not require the maintenance of outward appearances, but one that simply (or not so simply) requires one to love God, others, and one’s self.
Paul spoke at length about circumcision as, during his time, it was Christianity’s hot topic du jour. In Romans 2, he uses circumcision as a metaphor for removing something that shields the conscience from being exposed to the world. However, in Romans 3, Paul uses circumcision to explain how the Jewish advantage of knowing and understanding the Scriptures was wasted. He considered this type of circumcision a calling to obey the whole law and even made this witty quip about circumcision:
I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Gal. 5:12 ESV)
In Galatians 5:12, Paul wished that those who prioritized circumcision, seemingly above all other commands, would go the extra mile and castrate themselves. Jonathan | sex & theology wrote more in depth about Paul’s remark and about others on his blog. Moreover, Paul condemned the practice of using weights on the remaining foreskin to hide evidence of a circumcision. During this time, even the slightest exposure of the glans was considered indecent. In the case of those with “deficient” natural foreskin, they were expected to tie or clamp it over the glans. For this reason, I do not think that Paul would condemn today’s men for seeking foreskin restorations. The ancient Greeks were driven by aesthetics and today’s men are driven by the desire to reclaim bodily autonomy and integrity that was robbed from them at infancy.
The difference between circumcision then and circumcision now
Circumcision in the Old Testament only removed a small amount of the foreskin, which allowed the foreskin to retain many of its natural functions. However, this practice started phasing out when Jesus told Peter to kill and eat on a Heavenly projection screen. I still do not know why God would command this specifically as a display of a covenant with His people, but it does help to know that only a small amount of the foreskin was removed and that the foreskin, for the most part, was mostly intact.
Circumcision in the US has its roots in the anti-masturbation movement, removes much or all of the foreskin, and is still widely practiced despite the mounting evidence against routine circumcision. Moreover, US circumcision commonly practiced without anesthesia and has, like the ancient Greeks, largely aesthetic motivations. Some fathers even opt for circumcision because they want their son’s penis to “look like theirs”. Since parents don’t usually have this sort of a fixation on their children’s other body parts, I find this type of aesthetic preference for circumcision rather unnerving.
I do not find Old Testament circumcision to be at odds with my beliefs in bodily integrity. Instead, I now see it as a time that God used to show that we cannot be perfect no matter how many rules and rituals we follow. Even so, Old Testament circumcision did not do as much damage to the penis as today’s forms of circumcision. I still do not know exactly why God chose circumcision as a reminder of the Covenant He established between Himself and Abraham, but it does help to know that circumcision then and circumcision now took place during different time periods, had different motivations, and even took different amounts of foreskin. Circumcision had its time and its place, but to me, it makes no sense to continue a more extreme version of this practice.